Missing the Mark: 5 Ads That Enraged Their Target Audiences

By Anthony Shields  FEB 06, 2013 10:10 AM

A look at five commercials that angered their original fan base.


Good marketing can be a lot harder than it seems, especially when established companies try to impress new customers. In their efforts to create funny or eye-catching ads, marketing teams will sometimes go too far and find themselves in the middle of a controversy. The following is a list of companies who in the attempt of turning new consumers on to their products, turned off the fans they already had.

5. “I am not a gamer.” 

With the growing popularity of the gaming industry and the successful merging of geek culture and pop culture in blockbusters like Marvel’s (NYSE:DIS) The Avengers and Wreck-It-Ralph, “Geek Chic” seems to have reached a new high in America. As such, the age-old image of the gamer as being a social outcast has been abandoned; everyone from grandparents to frat boys are playing games lately. So with all this progress, why did Nintendo (PINK:NTDOY) decide to launch ads for its 3DS handheld with the phrase “I am not a gamer”? The ads all show accomplished and attractive women and girls, such as gold medalist Gabrielle Douglas and actress Dianna Agron, playing Nintendo games while declaring, "I am not a gamer." The intention was to reach out to female gamers, a growing but currently underrepresented demographic. Instead the Japanese company instigated the ire of its fanbase, who felt they were being dismissed, or else insulted. Perhaps worse, the ads may have played a role in the recent backlash against girls in gaming, wherein harassment and ridicule has increased, forcing community members and journalists to address the issue.

4. The Mazda CX-5 Lorax ads

Is it ironic that the Lorax -- the beloved Dr. Seuss character who warned against unchecked corporate interests -- became a mascot for IHOP (NYSE:DIN), Target (NYSE:TGT), Whole Foods (NASDAQ:WFM) and Pottery Barn in the days leading up to its 2012 movie release? If so, then is it even more ironic that the same character loudly championed Mazda’s (PINK:MZDAF) CX-5 line of SUVs? Ironic or not, everyone from environmentalists to auto journalists found Mazda’s ads to be in bad taste and against the very message of Seuss’ book. Despite the backlash, Mazda never commented on the controversy, most likely because it was only one of 70 companies that arranged a tie-in with the movie. Instead Mazda simply let the issue pass, as Steven Colbert mocked the company in Seuss-ian verse.     
3. “Re-civilize yourself."
Nivea is well known for its successful skin care line for women, but in 2011 the company decided that strengthening its line for men would be a good idea. To get the attention of a male audience, Nivea’s marketing folks used some aggressive language and imagery. However, the company didn’t think things through, deciding to run an ad in Esquire magazine depicting a clean-shaven black man in a button-up shirt ready to toss away a mask of his pre-Nivea self -- afro and a beard included -- under the slogan, “Re-civilize yourself.” Many readers felt that imagery was subtlety racist and voiced their disgust. The company was quick to point out that the campaign had other ads featuring white men in similar circumstances, but still changed the direction of the campaign to make it less controversial.   

2.  “White is coming."  

To be fair, nearly ALL of the early ads for the Sony’s (NYSE:SNE) PSP and PS3 were disasters, but the electronics maker’s 2006 ad for its white PSP was the first to start an actual controversy. When Sony announced its arrival of its white PSP in the Netherlands, its choice of imagery made its potential consumers pretty uncomfortable. Sony’s Billboard depicted a blonde white woman dressed entirely in white, aggressively grabbing a black woman dressed in all black. Naturally, this color scheme raised a considerable amount of racial tension and many complaints. In reality, the ad was only one of three that showed a back-and-forth struggle, though the fact that Sony wanted to display its products in conflict seems like a poor strategy in the first place. Sony later pulled the ad and issued an apology.

1. The Tibet Super Bowl Ad, Groupon

Groupon (NASDAQ:GRPN) gets little love on the markets these days, but it really turned people off with its 2011 Super Bowl XLV ads. On game day, the company launched a series of commercials starring well-known actors. In each ad, the actor would feign interest in particular social issues, like saving whales or protecting the rainforest. Midway through the commercial, however, the "cause" would be laughed off and a Groupon deal revealed. The ad that caused the biggest uproar was a spot featuring Timothy Hutton celebrating a Groupon deal for a Tibetan restaurant. "The people of Tibet are in trouble. Their very culture is in jeopardy," says Hutton. "But they still whip up an amazing fish curry." The ads were called both racist and ignorant by several organizations, with only Greenpeace willing to cut Groupon some slack. Still due to overwhelming pressure, CEO Andrew Mason eventually issued an apology and dropped the ads.

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